Politics

A guid Scots New Year: ‘It started with Hogmanay. Nobody knew when it would end’. By Hugh MacDonald

IT was the biggest day of the year. Every year. It was such a big day that it lapped against the constraints of time, overspilling into what seemed a week, maybe more.

It came after the jollity and the largely gentle civility of Christmas.

It started with Hogmanay. Nobody really knew when it would end.

The foundation stones were set in place with a workmanlike efficiency. The house was cleaned from top to bottom. Emergency repairs were undertaken.

My father was a spark to his trade so electrical devices were, frankly, lethal. The light switch in the sitting room could only be operated by inserting an aboriginal spear at precisely the right angle. This circumstance – which needs another column to explain fully – only lasted for a matter of years, certainly less than a decade.

Tasks completed, we sat down to steak pie, ginger cordial and the rituals of welcoming in another year. These included a lump of coal, a first foot, and the banishment of my younger sister to bed as she was afflicted by Hogmanay fever.

The symptoms of this disorder were, in order, her home-made choreography of the latest Hollywood musical, a series of collisions with furniture, a series of collisions with fellow human beings and, finally, one collision with pater whose nerves were somewhat stretched by the sight of an array of malts that could not be quaffed for some hours hence.

The bells were greeted with a clamour that would have shamed Quasimodo. The front door then opened with such regularity that serious thought was given to installing a turnstile.

The house then trembled and shook for hours, indeed days. There was an informal twinning with Big George’s Party which kicked off on the night of New Year’s Day. But this was largely conducted in the style of loan transfers with guests continually switching their allegiance, largely on whim* (* the precise meaning of whim in this case is the exact measurement of Guinness in George’s barrels)

As children we became merrily, benevolently feral. We slaked our thirsts with an array of mixers, had our fill of the ageing buffet, carefully brushing off the fag ash to devour a cheese sandwich so curled one suspected it had been made with the help of a heated hair tong.

We took on the role of observers. We were largely invisible. This was an era when children were not seen and not heard. This was to our considerable benefit.

My old man’s soirées, known simply as ceilidhs, could include the famous. He hosted such as Hamish Imlach (probably in the kitchen making a currie), Danny Kyle (certainly in the living room trying to douse the flames from curtains that have been the victim of a misfiring magical trick), Annie Logan (sitting in the big chair with a big song), Hamish Henderson (meekly acquiescing to requests for Freedom Come-All -Ye) and Malky McCormick (dancing on the railway wall while reprising the Lonnie Donegal songbook).

There were other celebrities, of course. But most were there for one night only, in one year only.

It was the regulars who consistently caused intrigue and sparked a profound fascination that has endured in me for much more than half a century.

Sceptics may snort when I say I witnessed glamour on the road from Possil to St George’s Road to Busby. But I did and its surprise, even shock, may even put Paul’s experience on the Damascus bypass in the shade.

There was enjoyment and education in those evenings. It is where I first heard the songs of Hank. It is where, too, songs of history were belted out: Big Uisdean and Stirling Brig, Alex and the Seven Men of Knoydart, Winnie with a poem, Belle with the Sinking of the Hood, George with anything and everything from a personal songbook that would fill a 21st century memory stick.

And there was more. There were discussions that seemed a lot like arguments, yet they stopped abruptly with no personal recrimination. They were about things that seemed too large for the young me, still might be, truth be told. The topic was How to Change the World. It was everyone’s specialist subject.

Amid the singing, the talking, the laughing, there was that gentle but lingering aroma of glamour. It was most obvious in the shape, style and wit of the women. But it existed, too, in the mass of people who were largely Glesca and working-class but who believed they could achieve through hard work and talent.

I learned the lesson of the former. The latter seemed to be harshly rationed to my detriment.

The ceilidh would finally come to an end. One would find guests down the back of the couch in the manner of discovering a long-lost and forgotten half crown.There would be a clanking parade of empty bottles to the bins. Life would return to routine.

But the effects linger on, like a benign hangover. I remember the stated and sung truth that better days were possible. I was lifted by the example of humour and bonhomie.

I loved these days. I loved those people in their demand to be heard, their determination to entertain, their insistence on their individuality that led some to glory, others to trouble, most to both.

This all echoes down the years. As the clock ticks towards another year, I recall their names, their songs. I sing them quietly to myself and perhaps even to them. I swear they sometimes whisper back.

Happy New Year.

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